Ben and Kelly Navarro

Charleston businessman Ben Navarro, wife Kelly and dog Major Tom. Provided 

Ben Navarro’s Meeting Street Schools prepare thousands of Charleston County kids for college — and now he’s going to help pay their tuition.

Today, the local entrepreneur/philanthropist and his wife, Kelly, will announce their Meeting Street Scholarship Fund. The program will supplement the cost of higher education for those who need the help most.

Make no mistake, this is going to change lives.

Basically, anyone who graduates from a Charleston County high school and qualifies for a state lottery LIFE or Palmetto Fellows scholarship and a federal Pell Grant will be eligible for $10,000 a year from the fund.

That puts a degree within reach for a lot of students who have strong academic records but otherwise could never afford it. Hundreds of local graduates will qualify every year.

“We want more kids deciding they can go to college,” Navarro says. “College isn’t for everybody, but if you qualify for a LIFE scholarship, it probably is.”

The beauty and simplicity of this program is that it levels the playing field and increases access to higher education. The cost of college has become one of the biggest issues in education, and student loan debt has become so crushing that it played a role in this year’s presidential campaign.

This fund targets students most likely to succeed in college. Students eligible for a LIFE scholarship must meet two of three requirements: finish high school with a 3.0 grade point average, get at least 1,100 on the SAT test or finish in the top 30% of their class.

The LIFE scholarship pays a little more than $5,000 a year toward tuition for as long as they maintain a 3.0 average. To put that in perspective, tuition at College of Charleston or USC is more than $12,000 a year. At Clemson, it’s more than $15,000.

The Palmetto Fellows scholarship is a merit-based program with higher GPA and test score requirements, and pays $1,700 to $2,500 more a year than a LIFE scholarship.

Qualifying for a Pell Grant is based entirely on a student’s family income. For instance, a child who lives in a household with an annual income of $26,000 or less is eligible for the maximum grant — about $6,000 a year. Students from families with less than $60,000 annual income qualify for some funding.

That $10,000 a year, Navarro says, is to fill that financial gap, and ensure kids who should go to college have that chance.

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The only fine print here is the student has to go to a public or private college that graduates at least 50% of its students within six years. The Navarros don’t want anyone going to schools that aren’t working. And they know a thing or two about that.

They opened Meeting Street Academy Charleston downtown in 2008 and that grew into a public-private partnership with the Charleston County School District. The idea was to develop a curriculum, hire a staff and mandate parental involvement, a recipe they believed would overcome the opportunity gap.

The school worked so well they opened North Charleston’s Meeting Street Elementary @Brentwood in 2014. Two years ago, they took over Burns Elementary, one of the most chronically troubled schools in the district.

Now, MSA Charleston students score on average in the 96th percentile on reading and the 94th percentile on math in state MAP testing. At Brentwood, students score in the 61st percentile on reading and the 75th percentile on math.

Most Title I North Charleston students score on average in the 23rd percentile.

“It sort of dispels the myth that poverty makes it impossible to educate kids,” Navarro says. “Brentwood and Burns are just public neighborhood schools with a regular enrollment zone.”

In other words, they aren’t cherry-picking students. They’re just educating them. The Meeting Street Scholarship Fund is the logical continuation of the Navarros’ efforts to improve education opportunity and access.

“This isn’t some new diversion for Ben and Kelly Navarro, it is a continuation of their philanthropy,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg says. “This couldn’t come at a better time. This year has seen a focus on disparity and issues of equity. This is transformational, a great equalizer in education.”

Navarro estimates 500 students will qualify for the scholarships this year, but he hopes to see that number grow in the future.

And it should. This is the answer to students who question why they should do their homework or work hard for good grades.

Because it could change their lives.

The Meeting Street Scholarship Fund's website has gone live. Read more here.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.